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  • Writer's pictureMarcas Mac an Tuairneir

Iona McGregor

Dùn Èideann

Nowadays I think that my openness must have frightened off any closeted sisters. I also had the wrong guide-books. My identikit was constructed from the poems of Sappho The Well of Loneliness, an textbooks of so-called abnormal psychology which I read in the National Library on a ticket issued to me for the linguistic research connected with my work. There was nothing else. Lesbian literature was still sparse and all of it tainted with guilty despair. Women's history did not exist. There were no role role models, let alone a supportive community. My few older women friends, sympathetic but straight, unanimously advised me to pack my bags for London. Despite the existence there of one or two clubs like the Gateways, I doubt if life was much better in London than in Edinburgh thirty years ago, except for the negative advantages of anonymity. Before taking this advice, I did briefly meet three gay women in Edinburgh. I think the circumstances sum up how it was for lesbians in the Fifties. I was invited to a party. She was cutting sandwiches, and handing them out as they were made. When I reached the top of the queue, Mary, as I shall call her, put down the bread-knife.

'I think we have something in common,' she said.

I smiled. 'Oh, what's that?' A passion for Camembert, perhaps, or Mendelssohn's violin concerto? Mary fixed me with a yearning, solemn gaze.

'I've been to the Hebrides to think it over. I stood on the beach for hours and hours...'

And there she had come to the inevitable conclusion, Mary went on in rather too audible tones. She had decided that she was a lesbian.

The queue behind me was getting restless, and it seemed prudent to continue this discussion in a less public place. As we moved off to an empty room (leaving the hungry guests to cut their own sandwiches) I asked myself what she wanted. Was it only human contact in the heterosexual wilderness, or something more?

I was never to find out. I had barely adjusted to the fact that there were not one but two lesbians in Edinburgh, when Mary's man burst into the room. He was a weel-kent Scottish poet. He said some unfriendly words as he reclaimed his property. Mary let herself be hustled away like an obedient little dog. I had already asked her to call on me the next evening, but of course she never arrived. The coffee remained simmering, the bottle of wine unopened. What became of you, Mary? Did you marry your hairy minstrel? You are probably a grandmother by now.

The other two gay women, who were lovers, I met shortly before we all quitted Edinburgh. I departed for London and they went to China. We left for seemingly opposite reasons that were really the same reason. They felt they were too conspicuous, and I felt that I did not exist. There was no place or community for us in Scotland.

The last twenty years have helped me understand the diversity of ways in which people experience gayness and also how long it can take to come to terms with it. My circumstances were unique to me; but they had something in common with those of all gay people of my generation. We were conditioned to accept our fragmented, twilight world. We were half-invisible to ourselves as well as to heterosexual society.

It is right to be concerned that Clause 28/19 offers a threat to our hard-won liberties. The effects of the legislation particularly serious for young gays, who may have to struggle towards the homosexual community through barriers of isolation and self-hatred. Yet for most of us - and the young, too, if they can make it - it can never again be so bad as it was in the Fifties. We have become visible to ourselves and each other, as well as to the general public who are now aware that we exist in large numbers. When word is out, that can bring its own problems; but the worst oppression is self-oppression.

Excerpt from Visibility Eighties Rising from And Thus I Will Freely Sing: An Anthology of Gay and Lesbian Writing from Scotland.

Polygon, 1989

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